This week, I was sent a video to watch for work. I was extremely busy, as I have been for weeks now. I clicked the link, a task in a long list I had in front of me for the day, not knowing what it was going to be about.
Halfway through the opening montage of images–visual clips that triggered memories of all we’ve lived through in the last year (schools closing, hospitals overrun, masks, protests over masks and police violence, wildfires, the election, the insurrections of January 6, the ice storm)–I started shaking. Then I started crying. I cried through the whole video. I cried after the video stopped. I rewatched it just now to see if it would have the same impact, and I’m typing these words with tears running down my face.
I was astonished by my reaction. If you had asked me, in the last few weeks, how I am doing, I would have told you that I am fine. Just fine. Busy, but with lots of good things. I might have told you that the pandemic was feeling strangely like something in the past, even as I know it’s still happening. Sure, I’m still wearing masks when I venture out, but I’m venturing out more and more. I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve been back in school buildings. Next week, I have to get up and get dressed and be at work by a specific time because students will be returning to physical school. The events of the past year have been taking on a dream-like quality. Everything is starting to feel and look “normal” again, and the reality of a year ago, or even four months ago, feels unreal. Was it really that bad? I’ve thought.
Once I calmed down, I did a little Googling about responses to trauma, which got me thinking about numbness and my emotional state the past few weeks. When our governor announced, on the heels of the ice storm that had closed schools again, that all schools in our state would be required to re-open on the governor’s schedule, despite any plans we might have been making/implementing, I first felt overwhelmed with anger and anxiety–my typical responses to loss of control–but that quickly changed to what felt like calm. “It is what it is,” I said, and turned myself to tasks at hand, determined to think only about those things over which I do have control.
I also stopped writing here, which felt like relief. It was relief. I did not think it had anything to do with that last blow following on the heels of a torrent of them in February. I thought it was just about wanting to focus on different things for awhile. I’ve been spending my weekend mornings in practical, necessary tasks. And if not necessary, enjoyable–taking walks, puttering in the yard, planning upcoming happy events. I haven’t missed writing at all. I also stopped most interactions on social media, which I haven’t missed at all, either. I enjoy a quick scroll through Instagram (which I’ve curated to be a happy place), but when I’ve gone on Facebook I’ve felt none of the old pull. I remember a time when I wanted to be there, but lately that’s felt unreal in the way the early days of the pandemic have been feeling unreal: I know I had the feelings I had at one point, but I have none of them now, and it’s hard to understand in any sense but an intellectual one why I ever had them. I took it off my phone and feel no desire to put it back.
It had never occurred to me, until I watched the video and reflected upon its impact, that what I’ve been (not) feeling is another variation on impacts of the past year’s events. I thought I was moving on. Instead, I was just getting through.
What I know of grieving is that we have to feel all the feelings to move through it to some better place. Not back to the old place, but a better place than the one our losses have us currently in. I hated how I felt watching that video. I don’t have the capacity, right now, to feel those feelings. I have a lot of things to get through in the next 7 weeks. The morning I watched the video the first time, I didn’t get as much done as I would have if I hadn’t.
Still, there is this: This morning, for the first time since I wrote my last post, I felt like writing. Not this post; I worked on an essay I abandoned more than a year ago. And it felt good, which made me want to write to you, here.
I might have to think more deeply about what really needs getting done by June. In the meantime, what I want to say today is, I hope you’re all doing OK. It helped me to realize that I haven’t been as OK as I thought, and I wondered if sharing my experience might be helpful to you in some way. I’m understanding in a new way that coming out of this pandemic is going to be a process, and likely a long one. At least for some of us.
Two springs ago I planted a vine in my backyard. Last spring, in the early weeks of the shutdown, I was afraid it hadn’t survived the winter. Weeks after everything else had shown signs of coming back to life, the vine was still a network of bare branches clinging to the fence that supports it. I’ve had the same wonderings this spring. As my willow burst into pink buds and my blousy tulips opened wide, the vine showed not even the signs of buds, and I worried a bit. I reminded myself of what I know to be true: It did this last year, and it was alive, even though it didn’t seem to be. But this week, it gave me this:
That’s enough to go on, for now.
I’m still on haitus (or going back on it), but you can think of me as being like the vine, getting ready to bloom again when I’m good and ready. We’re all on our own timelines, and that’s OK.
Because for a few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I haven’t wanted to write lately, and a few days ago I gave myself permission not to write this week unless I wanted to, and then I spent Saturday morning cleaning floors and talking with my daughter and eating German pastries with Cane and taking a long walk in the sun and it felt really, really good to start my day that way, and I’d like to have more spring Saturdays like the one I just had.
Because getting to the end of the school year feels like rounding the last corner of a 440 (as it was called back in my track days), where you somehow have to sprint even though your legs have turned into hot plastic and it feels like you’re about to vomit your lungs.
Because I need a different kind of space and energy, for awhile, as we emerge from our pandemic lives and make our way not back to our pre-pandemic lives but forward into whatever our post-pandemic lives will be.
Because I have three consuming and life-changing projects beginning, and I need to make a lot of things happen in a short period of time.
Because writing, my whole life, has been marked by fallow periods that are just as important as the ones in which words bloom.
Because I can still connect with far-away folks through their blogs or through email or social media.*
Because too much heat and light will kill the seeds of whimsy before they sprout.
Because white space might be the most important element of design.
Because the days are getting longer but life is getting shorter.
Because sometimes even I need a break from my voice.
Because right now I want to listen more than talk.
Because a hiatus is a pause, not a stop.**
I hope you enjoy the spring, whenever and however it comes to you. Take care.
*I have a Twitter account, but I rarely use it. I’m on FB less and less. I’m liking Instagram and accept follow requests from those I don’t recognize unless: a) you’re a guy who likes to post pics of yourself with no shirt on and/or only pics of yourself; b) you’re following 300 gazillion (or so) but you have only 3 followers (like, literally only 3); c) you only have 3 posts; d) you somehow otherwise smell like a bot; e) any of a-d and your account is private, so I can’t investigate further to get a sense of you are.
**I am 99% sure I will resume writing here, and probably sooner than later. If you want to know when a new post goes up, please subscribe so you’ll get an email notification. There’s a place to do that at the top of the right column. I won’t spam your inbox or sell your address or do anything that’s otherwise nefarious or intrusive. Aside from the fact that I find such practices gross, to do those things I’d have to figure out again where in WordPress subscriber addresses are, and I’ve got way better things to do with my time.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the day I went home from school and never came back. Late in the day on March 12, 2020 our governor announced that schools would be closing on March 13. Most schools in my district had no students on the 13th (staff development/grading), so our students’ desks and lockers were filled with books and papers and soon-to-be rotting lunches.
I began the morning of the 13th with a staff meeting that I later described as “horrific.” I remember shock, tears, and anger as teachers worked to process what was happening. I served our alternative school last year (in one of my half-time positions), and ours was the only building that had students that day. I watched the adults around me pull themselves together to create calm for our students. Those in alternative programs have generally been failed by a variety of systems, and our staff was dedicated to preventing further school-based trauma for them.
The initial outpouring of love and appreciation for teachers at the beginning of the pandemic was both gratifying and disconcerting. It’s always nice to feel seen, but seriously: Have none of y’all been paying any attention over the past few decades?
Our “spring break” ended with a state-level directive to switch our schools to an entirely on-line experience. (Except for lunches. We still needed to feed the kids.) We had two weeks to put that in place. We limp-sprinted to the end of the school year, throwing together packets and scrambling to learn new tech tools and worrying about our students and their families while grappling with our own shock, disbelief, fear, and grief about what the pandemic–and what it was revealing–was doing to all of us.
By the summer, as arguments about what school would be in the fall started, we were no longer heroes. (Not really any surprise there.) We tried to make plans for a constantly-shifting landscape. Some teachers worked the whole summer (unpaid) to ready themselves. Others did not (to ready themselves in a different way). My administrators spent most of the summer planning for hybrid instruction, only to learn in August that we would be fully in distance-learning mode.
Two weeks before school was to begin, our alternative high school staff was informed via group email that our school was being closed, disbanding our small, close community. Our students were sent back to the large high school that hadn’t worked for them or to a new online school that was being put together as the email was being written. A few staff were assigned to the new virtual school. Most were scattered around the district. One was first assigned to a 5th grade class, then, a week into the school year, moved to the online school to teach high school.
Our “not-open” schools were closed the second week of school because so many were displaced by raging wildfires and our air quality was so toxic our homes were unhealthy to breathe in.
I was still an instructional coach, but I didn’t get a new school assignment until mid-October. I didn’t want for work; I supported teachers I’d worked with before, and there were days of training for a whole, new, comprehensive coaching program being launched, pandemic or no. In some ways the lack of assignment was a bit of a blessing, as my other half-time job (being the librarian for all of our schools, K-12) could have kept several full-time people busy. Prior to the pandemic, we had no ebooks in our collections and our teachers had made little use of the digital resources we had. There was a heavy lift to get things up and running in a system that was reeling. Our library staff had their hours cut, and one position that went vacant wasn’t filled, causing us to reconfigure how we provide services.
By the holidays, as some schools in the country remained closed while others opened, we teachers who resisted re-opening were turning into villains. The others (especially the ones who got sick or died) were turning into martyrs. The teachers I know were exhausted. I was exhausted.
Things sort of settled down–in terms of actual teaching and working–after break. Folks got a chance to catch their breath over the winter break, the first real time off many had taken since the previous one. Teachers were cresting the summit of the steep learning curve they’d climbed. They were figuring out how to do things well. We were calm enough to begin noticing benefits from distance learning and thinking about how they might be kept when we return to in-person instruction. My district publicly stated their commitment to providing quality instruction through distance learning, taking into account the needs of our disproportionately-impacted-by-Covid community, and I felt myself exhale just a bit. It was a relief to know what I could expect, and it allowed me to focus my work in a way I hadn’t been able to do since the previous March. I felt a commitment to distance learning that I hadn’t previously, as it’s hard to pour yourself into something new that could go away with little warning.
Then some districts in our state began pushing for in-person teaching, even though our Covid numbers were the worst they’d ever been and nothing had been done to mitigate problems with poor ventilation and air circulation in our aging and long-neglected buildings. Our governor changed metric requirements, prioritized educators over seniors for receiving the vaccine, and set Feb. 15 as the date she wanted schools to return to in-person instruction (but still left decisions about changing instructional models to districts).
If we were villains before winter break, I don’t know what we were by mid-February, when schools weren’t immediately resuming in-person instruction. According to some on many a school district Facebook page, we were lazy, selfish, uncaring, and getting paid to do nothing.
In the midst of the vaccine rollout, an ice storm took out power for hundreds of thousands, and our schools closed again. Some were outraged. “How hard is it for teachers to roll out of bed and stroll over to their computer?” I saw one person ask in response to a district announcement about closure. I worked for 4 of the 8 days I was displaced from my home, but I couldn’t fully work because my school-issued computer has a broken microphone that prevents me from using Zoom on it. (I’ve been using my personal desktop computer since we stopped working in our buildings last spring.)
I sat in a meeting last week where plans for LIPI (limited in-person instruction) were being talked about. We have been working to start LIPI, which would provide in-person instruction for our most vulnerable students, by the end of March. As I listened to the various components that had to be sorted–bus schedules, cohort and other mitigation requirements, teaching team configurations, union negotiations, staffing decisions, food services, communication with families–I understood in a new way the Rubik’s cube nature of solving the complicated problem of returning students to buildings. “I wish the public could know and understand how many moving parts there are to running a school in a pandemic,” I said to a colleague. “I wish people could understand that changing course is like turning a very large ship.”
Last Friday, I worked in our high school’s library. The library manager (the only person who works in the library, and who also manages all textbooks, and whose hours were cut this year) and I were sorting through all the books from the closed alternative school’s library and determining what to do with each of them. (Incorporate into the high school collection, send to the middle school, offer to teachers for classroom collections, discard.) Every single table in the library was covered with either stacks of books to process or packets of instructional materials for students to use in distance learning.
As we were ending our work for the day, the principal came in. In the course of our conversation she shared that the governor had just issued a new order requiring schools to open to in-person instruction by March 29 for K-5 and April 19 for 6-12. That’s two working weeks for our elementary schools to figure out how to pivot to something we’ve never done before while continuing the work we’re already doing, which is still very much in-progress.
In pre-pandemic times, we often shook our heads over being expected to fly the plane while we were building it. What’s going to happen now is more like flying the plane while we’re building it and simultaneously building a whole other plane that we will be transferring passengers to in mid-air, using punch-drunk pilots who’ve exceeded regulations on how many back-to-back shifts in a row they can work.
The point of this post is not to make or engage in arguments about distance learning vs. hybrid learning. The point is also not to defend educators or engender sympathy for us; sympathy does not help and so often is used to turn those we are sacrificing (health care workers, our military, low-paid essential workers, etc.) into heroes or saints or martyrs so that we can justify the things we do to them and ask them to do. I am not writing to invite debate or discussion about the relative merits of different options. There are no good ones, given the things we are unwilling and/or unable to do, and I cannot stomach any more discourse that repeats the talking points of disingenuous and self-serving leaders, or that assumes that how we are living is “just how it is,” or that contains “what about” arguments. I’m just done with all of that. I’m too tired and I have too much to do to spend any energy on debates that will change nothing and do nothing but make everyone involved in them angry.
As I’m watching the world around me shift to accommodate the shape of something we’ve never experienced here, there is something that feels almost holy in this moment. I have been thinking for a long time that it would probably take some kind of disaster to turn us around on the path we’ve been hurtling down. That is the opportunity inherent in this unfolding disaster that will touch all of us in some way, if it hasn’t already.
My deep, fervent hope today is that this will propel us to remember how inter-connected we all are, to reach out to each other rather than erect walls between us, to uphold ideas and ideals that have always been the best part of us, and to act more from love than from fear.
I want to reach back in time and pat myself on the head and murmur, “Bless your heart.”
While a pandemic will, of course, always create hardship and change and pain, ours hasn’t had to play out the way that it has–and I just want us to, for once, be honest about that and about why that is. I want us to be honest about all the ways in which our schools were broken and not serving kids before the pandemic. I want us to be honest about what we are going to get–and not–from the choices we are making.
If this post has any real point, it is only this: To shine a light. To share experience. To mark a significant anniversary. To tell a truth. To be seen.
Seems like more than a few of us have had ourselves quite a month. Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed or worn out, I like to go back through my camera roll to see what sense it can give me of a time. Often, it helps me see that my feeling about a time isn’t the whole picture of it. Because I often take photos of what delights me, it can be an exercise in reminding myself of the small moments that don’t (but probably should) carry as much weight as some of the larger ones.
(I’ve been listening to Tana French audiobooks for a few months now, and there are some Irish words seeping into my thoughts.)
Look at me up there in that last full paragraph, sounding so wise and grounded. Cue the montage of lovely little life vignettes: flowers on the table, a stack of good books, snow sparkling under the rising sun. Oh, I meant every word as each came through my fingers (and I could easily create such a montage), but re-reading them as a whole I could feel my whole being rise up in resistance to such facile positivity–which is probably evidence of how easily inspirational Insta quotes can seep into a person if she’s not careful.
Attaining peace and contentment is not necessarily about finding delight, or about making sure you put every little thing on some balance scale, so that a multitude of small good things somehow mitigate or outweigh a fewer number of heavier bad things.
As I chose these images (no more than one for any day) and wrote my captions, I couldn’t help thinking of those optical illusions where what you see is presumed to be some kind of test of your mindset:
Was my month full of absence, disease, displacement, disruption, broken systems, and uncertainty? Or was it full of family, community, safety nets, solutions, possibility, and love?
What’s helped me get through this challenging month (season, year) is rejecting singular narratives–which means resisting not just one-sided, all-or-nothing ideas about our lives as a whole, but also about any discrete parts of our lives. The glass of any experience is neither half-full nor half-empty; it is always both empty and full. In every single image from my month are aspects of abundance and deprivation, sorrow and joy, hope and fear. All of those, all together, in every one.
The longer I live, the more it seems to me that the best way to fully feel the good things is to fully acknowledge the hard within them. To see and own and maybe even embrace the mess that is always part of the beautiful in our lives.
Limbo is a dance, one I have never been good at. Limbo the dance requires one to be limber–supple and agile, able to bend and balance in ways that life does not, for most of us, often require. Even as a child, when I was at my most flexible, I never liked doing the Limbo, with its awkward backward bending in front of an audience, its requirement to pass beneath a pole without touching it. Now that I am a thickening adult with a constantly stiff back, I am sure that if I were to attempt the dance I’d be eliminated in the first round.
Limbo is also a part of Hell. Although raised Catholic (for the most part), I never gave it much thought until I read Dante’s Inferno. Home to unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans, it seemed the best place I might hope to land, if Dante’s vision of the after life has any basis in reality. I rather liked his architecture of sin and, apart from the bits about unbaptized babies and those who died from suicide, generally agreed with his hierarchy of evil.
Of course, we more commonly use “limbo” to mean a place of transition or uncertainty here on earth, often one in which we feel trapped. (If a person has been in this kind of limbo during the past week, they might have spent more time than is probably healthy wondering if a certain person who departed life has landed in Bolgia 9 or 10 of Hell’s eighth circle.) It can feel like a kind of hell to be in this kind of limbo, and it can require the agility and flexibility a person needs to successfully pass under the limbo stick. I think of the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal, in which his main character is trapped in airport limbo, neither permitted to enter the United States nor return home to his country no longer recognized as a country, and how he adapted to a way of being that feels impossible to most of us.
It’s been a long time since I saw that movie (and I think I slept through a good portion of it) or danced the limbo or read Dante–so these thoughts might be all kinds of gibberish–but I’m claiming “limbo” as my word of the week. It’s been six days since I’ve lived at home, and while I am grateful to have a place with heat and light and water and food, it feels as if I’ve slipped into a deeper circle of pandemic hell, where life is simultaneously both on hold and moving forward, and I don’t know how long it will remain this way. When I packed my little suitcase last Monday, I thought, surely, I would only be gone a few days. I told myself to think of it as a little vacation, a lark, a treat: permission to relax that it is so hard to give myself at home. It was not unlike my initial stance toward Covid shutdown; I optimistically threw a box of brownie mix and supplies for an embroidery project into a bag before closing the door to my dark, frigid house.
Now, after 6 days and four phone conversations with the power company and daily trips back and forth just to make sure that the power is, indeed, still not on, I find myself re-enacting the stages of acceptance I first lived last March. I long to go home at the same time I’m almost feeling as if the life I lived there is slipping away from me. I’m moving from disbelief to acceptance, and my new not-normal is beginning to feel some kind of normal, a transformation I am both resisting and welcoming. We are perverse and adaptable creatures, we humans, whether we want to be or not.
Like the Tom Hanks character, sure I will get to return at some point but with no idea of when, I find myself needing to think (and be) differently today than I did a week ago. The power company has a map that suggests power could be restored today, but yesterday the kind (and understandably weary-sounding) PGE lady I talked to told me that it is an estimate, not a guarantee. Something in her voice and words told me I shouldn’t count on that map. She was sorry, but she really couldn’t tell me when I might be able to return. The estimate map, she told me, was so that I could plan, but she couldn’t promise anything.
“How can I make a plan if I can’t actually know when the power will come back?” I asked.
She said she was sorry she couldn’t help me more. I was, too.
This morning, however, I realize that she has, in fact, helped me develop a new plan, which is only this: To live in the day I am in, and let go of plans with agendas and timelines and notions of home that aren’t serving me well in the place I’ve found myself. As I let this plan settle over me, it occurs to me that maybe I’m not traveling deeper into hell, but into some place that is its opposite. Maybe we all are, those of us who have weathered one event after another that has upset the apple cart of our lives and found ourselves scrambling to gather spilled fruit, grateful to reclaim even those that got bruised in the tumble.
4 laxative pills and 2 jugs of Gatorade and 1 bottle of Miralax
1 binge-watch of the entire first season of Imposters, in 1 (literal) sitting
1 power outage
1 power restoration
1 power surge
3 loud noises from 3 different major appliances, simultaneously
1 more power outage
2 phone calls to the power company and 1 honest service rep telling me that because my snapped wire affects only me, it will be days before it is repaired (because there has been nearly 300,000 people without power)
3 (and counting) nights away from home
2 days of school closure (reminding us all that while our schools might be in distance learning, they have been, in fact, “open”–and if you don’t believe me, read the comments on the district’s FB page from those angry about the closure)
4 (of 9) school buildings in my district closed to staff for the rest of the week because of storm damage
0 devices at my disposal capable of supporting a Zoom call
<24 hours before I need to work again
After the power went out again, and I packed my suitcase for a second time to go stay at Cane’s place, and my school district announced its closure for the next day I found myself feeling what seemed to be unreasonably fragile and angry: I had heat, water, electricity, a warm bed, and no expectation to work the following day. I was better off than many of my fellow Oregonians—not to mention my Midwest friends dealing with sub-zero temperatures and, I guess, the entire population of Texas. (How does one manage with freezing temps, no power, no water, and frozen sewage pipes?)
And still, teetering on the edge I was.
It’s all just been so much, hasn’t it?
I have a “normal” post in my drafts folder, almost ready to share with you. “Normal” means on a topic that has nothing to do with climate change, freak and life-threatening weather, political insurrection, contested elections, wildfires and toxic air quality, or pandemic. It just doesn’t feel like the right time for normal, though. Maybe by the weekend, or next week.
So, this is just a check in from the dumpster-fire of the past week (year?). By the numbers. (We all like to be data-driven now, right?)
Things aren’t good, but they are good enough. Somewhere in the midst of power going off and on and off again–maybe on the day that ice rained from trees and power lines like gemstone bullets, trapping us on one side of our windows–the hyacinths on my kitchen table silently stretched into full bloom.
Just when I thought nothing could be worse than January, along comes the first week of February.
Granted, no insurrection and murder at the capital—but this past week was brutal. For me, personally. And it seems there’s a lot of struggle in the zeitgeist over the past seven days. A lot of folks saying they’re hitting a wall of some sorts. If that’s you, I feel ya.
So, I got nuthin’ much for you this week. Any words I might have mustered on pretty much any topic would have been soaked in bitterness, pessimism, and dank, sour defeat. I muted several folks on Instagram back around Wednesday because their relentless exhortations to adjust my attitude and find joy and manifest and transform and dream felt like an assault.
I fuckin’ know how to look for joy, y’all. I. am. doing. it. all. the. damn. time.
I feel increasingly hostile toward those who do not acknowledge systemic causes of illness, burnout, and general failure to thrive. Although I’m not a working mom any more, I felt every word of this article that’s been making the rounds. Especially these few:
A critical first step is to remind yourself that the reason you feel guilty, apathetic and exhausted during this worldwide crisis is due to choices that were made by people other than yourself.
At the same time, I realize that we all do get to make choices. Sometimes we don’t have very good ones to make, but we almost always have some. This week, I chose not to write.
In the next 7 days I’ll be getting my Covid vaccine, consulting with a doctor about my (what I now realize are serious) sleep issues, and prepping for and getting a colonoscopy. I’m grateful beyond measure for my access to health care, but it feels like a lot. On top of the usual. So, I spent Saturday not writing but physically doing and preparing to do. I meal-prepped and grocery-shopped and house-cleaned. I walked almost 9,000 steps and took a nap. I made a good dinner and cooked up some dreams with Cane for a major project we’re starting.
After trekking to our convention center and getting vaccinated later this morning, I’ll be using what’s left of my weekend to retreat, rest, rejuvenate, and take care of myself. I hope you’re able to do whatever it is that heals you and fills you up (or just keeps you in mostly one piece) as we enter into another week of life in pandemic America.
This week I received a survey from the State Library and my state’s school library association, with a long list of questions about how the pandemic has affected library services and my work. After inquiring about ebooks, budgets, programming, teaching, safety, staffing, learning management systems, instructional technology, and more, there was this question tucked in near the end:
I first tried watching it a few years ago, and I hated it. Didn’t even finish the first episode. I tried it again last spring because everyone was talking about it, and I kinda hated it again. I just didn’t like those people, the Roses. They felt like caricatures more than characters, and were of people I’d never choose to spend time with.
“You have to get past the first season,” people said. “It gets better in season two.”
So, last fall I went back for a third time, telling myself I would get through season 2 before giving up.
Now I’m in season 4 and doling out the episodes so they’ll last longer. Somewhere in season 3 it occurred to me that the Roses’ story is a perfect one for this time, when so many of us felt our lives turn upside down almost overnight. (I think March 13 will, like September 11, be a date I never forget.) Can’t we all relate, at least a little, to a family who lost almost everything they took for granted? And can’t we all take some comfort and pleasure in watching the process of them acclimate and put down roots in a place they never would have seen themselves in, much less chosen? It’s already clear to me (if not them) that they are far happier than they ever were in their old life. I hope that by the end of the story, it becomes clear to them, too.
I’d say the same is true for me, as well, living in Pandemic Land. This week, I was in a long Zoom meeting with a colleague/friend I’ve hardly “seen” this year but who was in the school I worked for last year. We had a lot of conversations before March 13 about how to manage the challenges of our jobs and lives. “How are things going?” she texted me afterward. “You look much less stressed somehow.”
I answered: “Sometimes reaching a point of awful you really can’t do anything about gives you a permission to let go that is freeing.”
That night, I fell asleep in front of Netflix’s The Minimalists, but not before hearing and thinking about its primary message: We are so consumed with having physical things that we forfeit the intangible ones that make us truly happy–time, community, creativity, meaningful accomplishment, rest, health (personal and global). There are some things in my life that are hugely challenging–more challenging than they’ve ever been, maybe–but my friend was seeing something true: I am less stressed. I have fewer obligations and fewer life chores and more time than I’ve ever had for long conversations, leisurely meals, neighborhood walks, and serious contemplation. I’ve begun moving through my days at a slower pace, doing what I reasonably can rather than what some unreasonable voice is telling me I should. (No one seems to have noticed or, if they have noticed, to have cared.) That voice has gone mostly silent.
My life–not unlike the Roses’–is much smaller than it once was. There are people and places I deeply miss, but most of what has fallen away I do not. My connections to what and who remains are deeper. I don’t know that I am happier; the departure of Busyness made it easier for Hard Things to come in. But on the whole, I am calmer. I am finding that letting some of those hard things claim space has been easier than fighting to hold the door against them.
I’m glad I went back for a third try with this story, and I’m glad I watched it from the beginning. As is always true, you need the dark to more fully appreciate the light. I’m beginning to love these characters it was easy to hate before I got to know them. I love them more for seeing how they’ve grown. I love the reminder that stories and time have to intersect in the right way; 2017 wasn’t the right time for this story for me. I love, too, a corollary reminder about story: That you just need to tell the story you need to tell, wherever and however you can tell it. The Levys were developing and shopping this story well before the time Roses’ fall might be seen as metaphorical for so many things that have fallen in recent years, and they had a hard time selling it. Once they started telling it, it took a good while to catch on. They just kept telling the story, though, trusting (I imagine) that it was reaching who it needed to.
So, in addition to listing “holding boundaries” and “reciting the Serenity Prayer” as self-care that’s working for me, I also listed “binge-watching Schitt’s Creek.” Spending time with this story is good for me. I hate to think of it ending, but I suspect that by the time it does, I won’t need it in the same way. It’s already imprinting upon and shaping my own. It’s clear that they will never go back to what they once were, and over the past few weeks, as vaccines and political pressure on schools are harbingers of another set of new changes coming my way, I’ve realized that I won’t, either.
The day before the biopsy; 1,453 days after the last inauguration and 8 days until the next one:
I wake up with the tightness on the right side of my skull that always means migraine is coming. I email my doctor to make sure that I can take my meds before the biopsy, if necessary. I’ve learned that I should always assume it could be a migraine day, rather than that it won’t be.
Still, the tightness is light. Maybe I slept wrong. Maybe it will go away. Maybe I just need to drink some water. Maybe if I stay off screens all morning.
As I open the bedroom door and enter into my day, I remind myself: It’s never if, it’s always when. There is nothing I can do to hold it off forever.
The biopsy will be in the morning, but I am going to take the whole day off work. I plan to get groceries and clean the house. I’m having a hard time getting these things done on the weekends. I’m having a hard time getting through the week days. The previous week, the first one back from winter break, I had a 3-day migraine following an emotional meltdown and the insurrection at the Capitol.
I’m trying to figure out how to finish this school year in one piece.
The day of the biopsy; 7 days after the insurrection at the Capitol, 7 days before the inauguration:
On the morning of the biopsy, I watch a short film in which 5 women at different stages of life reflect on their bodies.
I remember being a girl and loving my body. I was fast and strong. (In 4th grade, I ran faster than every boy on field day.) My body was me and I was it. I don’t remember feeling that way about my body at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I can see I felt that way about it. It was before I was aware of my body as an object.
As a teen-ager, I cleaved from my body. It was a thing admired by boys and men. It was a thing for me to fight against. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to, but it looked the way it was supposed to. I was supposed to be grateful for it, looking that way. I learned that I wasn’t allowed to complain about it to other women. I felt it separate me from some of those who should have been my compatriots, my allies. I tried to appreciate my luck that I could eat whatever I wanted and never get fat. I ate to kill hunger. I ate for the pleasure of taste. I did not feed my body.
I think about all of this on the morning of my third ultrasound and an aspiration biopsy. Regardless of the results, which are likely to be reassuring, something has already changed for me. It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, that my body can spontaneously grow something we think it shouldn’t. My body has been doing things we think it shouldn’t since adolescence, when endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome made their presence known. (Not that I knew, then, what they were or that anything was really there–as opposed to in my head, which was suggested as the source of my pain, cementing for me an idea that my head was, in some important sense, a thing separate from my body. I did not have those names, those diagnoses, those frames with which to understand my body’s experiences for more than a decade, when my inability to conceive finally made doctors take my body seriously.) Still, it is a surprise, and now I look at my body differently. I feel differently about it.
I remember a poem a woman shared in my poetry workshop, back in the mid-80s, about her newborn; she compared his body to that of a frog, listed all the ways in which his body was not the one she expected, making him not the baby she had dreamed of. The last line was, “your mother is trying to learn to love you.” Most of the poems from that workshop have left me now, but that one stays. After she shared hers, I wrote one about my body, the first time I admitted out loud that I thought of my body as an antagonist to the protagonist that is me.
My body has changed during the pandemic. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s my mid-50s. Maybe it’s living through four years of attempted autocratic takeover. Maybe it’s that my job has become toxic to me. Maybe it’s all of the above. My body feels like a foreign country these days, and I’m an expat who wants to go home. I’m trying to learn to love it.
On the morning of the biopsy, I think that maybe the metaphor I’ve just conjured is all wrong. Maybe my body isn’t a country, but a passport.
I start to think about Befores and Afters. I wonder if, the day I get the results, my life will cleave into a Before and After, and then I wonder if that will be the true beginning of an After or if the After has already begun without me knowing it. Maybe the beginning of After was the day in December when the second ultrasound results meant I needed a biopsy and a specialist. Maybe it was the day a few weeks before that when I saw myself swallowing in a mirror and it looked as if a golf ball were bobbing up and down inside my throat. Maybe it was the day in August when my doctor asked if I’d noticed the lump on my thyroid, a bump then so small I couldn’t see or feel it, even when she brushed my fingers over it.
The migraine I felt approaching the day before hits me in the hospital, in the middle of the aspiration. The doctor and nurse are talking about the wild storm we’d had the night before, which downed tree limbs and took out power all over the city.
“Before I realized there was a storm, I heard a loud noise, something hitting the side of my house,” the doctor, who is not white, says to her, who is. “I didn’t know what it was, so I got out my gun and went outside.”
She laughs, and he does, too, but I, with a needle stuck in my neck, feel tears rising along with the pain in my head and my understanding of the implications of his words and how he said them. How he said, “I got out my gun” as if it was just another useful object for his task, like, say, a pair of gloves or a flashlight.
I take my meds on the way to the parking lot, and it feels like it’s all I can do to get home. The day I planned is lost to fatigue and fog.
The day of results;inauguration day:
I finally receive a phone call from the doctor’s office. The doctor would like to go over the results of my biopsy; can I take a call in 10 minutes?
Yes, of course.
Why aren’t the results just posted in my online medical chart, like every other test result has been? Why can’t this nice-sounding Cory just tell me the results, if the results are benign? I don’t ask if he can just tell me; I know he can’t.
10 minutes become 20, and then Cory calls me again to ask if I can wait another 20 or so more.
Do I have a choice?
While waiting, I am watching everyone’s reactions to the presidential inauguration in my social media feeds. I did not get to see the inauguration because I had a work meeting. Maybe that is the reason I cannot feel the jubilation everyone else seems to be feeling. Maybe it is because I had another meeting right after the inauguration that is the latest in a series of meetings that have grown increasingly hard to tolerate. “It feels like they are just gaslighting us,” a colleague texts me during the meeting. I feel a jolt of recognition: Yes, it does. Yes, I know what gaslighting is. Yes, yes, yes.
I am watching everyone’s reactions because I am too agitated to work. I wish I could feel some simple joy and release, but I cannot. I am relieved but I am also angry and teary and so, so tired.
Finally, the doctor calls, and I take a deep breath. I want him to just spit it out, whatever it is.
“It’s benign,” he finally says. The solid parts of the nodule are benign. The nodule was mostly fluid.
“Are you feeling relief from the aspiration?” he asks. “Is it smaller now?”
Yes, I tell him, I am and it is. I tell him that the pressure on my throat is now gone.
He says some other things I won’t remember, and then I ask the question I need an answer to:
“What happens now?”
He tells me that we will monitor it now, and that there may be more ultrasounds and aspirations in my future if it grows back. It can continue to grow back.
I know I should feel happy. “You don’t have cancer!” he told me, and I could hear the exclamation point in his voice. (I bet he loves to say those words. I would, if I were him.) I do feel relief, but it is flat. (The odds of cancer were small, so the threat never felt real, but it could have been, and I did know that. I could be feeling something much, much worse than the small, sharp pinch of anxiety I felt over Cory not giving me the results himself.)
I want relief to make me feel the way I did Before–before I knew in a new way that my body can betray me and do things I cannot control and for which there are no readily available explanations. I wonder what it might be doing now, invisibly, and if it might, even in this moment of relief, be failing in ways that will not become apparent until much later. I miss my innocence, which I can see now wasn’t lost suddenly, all-at-once during the biopsy, but in layers over decades of living in a body that never worked as good as it looked. Nonetheless, the biopsy has taken me into some new territory of understanding, one from which there can be no true returning, and I long to feel once again, just once more, the way I did in fourth grade, Keds pounding into hard-packed dirt, hair rippling in wind of my own making, my strength and speed surprising myself as much as all those boys behind me.
A note: I have been reading, for the first time in years, about creative non-fiction. From Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant, I especially value this quotation from Annie Dillard, for reminding me of a realization I had once upon a very long time ago (thanks in large part to her essay “Living Like Weasels”):
I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.
I appreciate the reminders throughout the book that creative non-fiction is not just a relating of events (and thoughts are a kind of event), but of creating art from events by making purposeful choices about structure, narration, action, style, and language.
Today’s essay/post is an attempt to express artistically some of what I said in last week’s post, which was not art so much as a brain dump. (For a really great example of an essay reflecting on current events that is as much poem as essay and is gorgeous political art, I recommend “Inside the Blue Hole.”) Last week’s post content came not only from frustration and worry about what’s been happening for all of us, but also from frustration with the circumstances of my own life. Over break, I was able to write the beginnings of art. A whole book took shape in my head, and I started to capture it in notes and lists of books and essays, and in posts here. Within days of returning to work, I felt it slipping away from me (the cause of the meltdown referenced in the essay above). I tried my best to hold on, but I couldn’t. Last week I accepted that some weeks a dump is all I can manage, and that it will have to be good enough for now.
A post by Ally this week took me down a word-count rabbit hole, and at the bottom of it was realization that I’ve written the equivalent of, roughly, 2.5 full-length books in the past six years here. (Last year alone was 1 book.) Of course, there’s much more to writing a book than simply getting words out, but still. Just getting words out is something.
I have no grand conclusion here, no big pronouncements to make. I expect to keep showing up here as I have been–sometimes giving you the first drafts of something like art, and sometimes giving you a word dump. But rumination is happening. Change is afoot.
There was a moment, last March, when I woke in the middle of the night and suddenly understood the feeling of emotional vertigo I’d been grappling with, my sense that the ground beneath me was no longer solid. I had known for a long time, in an intellectual way, that my country was no longer what I had thought, for all of my life, it was. But I had told myself that the foundation of our lives was steady. Yes, terrible things were happening, but nothing was permanent, and in the meantime life would go on as it essentially always had. That’s how it had been during both Bush administrations, right? I had told myself that what was happening was extreme, and our institutions were damaged and would need repair, but we were fundamentally sound. Right?
Then the pandemic hit, and it became starkly clear that our institutions were broken and we were all on our own in a way I had never seen. As hospitals scrambled for PPE, and the country shut down with no relief for those who suddenly had no livelihood, and our president held press briefings every day in which he brazenly lied to us, I saw that things I’d believed (hoped) could never happen here already had. I felt dread and anxiety settle over me like a cloak, and as 2020 progressed through police violence and protests and fights over masks and school openings while people died and fires blazed and we choked on toxic air, its weight grew heavier and heavier.
When Trump lost the presidential election, it lightened. I knew that victory wasn’t a silver bullet. I knew things weren’t going to go back to some Before and that the forces that had brought us Trump weren’t going to magically disappear, but–at the very least, I thought–we’d have a reprieve from the onslaught and an administration that would restore functionality to our government agencies.
The reprieve ended before the new presidency even began. It didn’t happen all at once on January 6, but has unfolded slowly (and then quickly) over the days since then, as layers of information have peeled back what happened to a core that is (for me, at any rate) as ground-shaking as the one that emerged in March. Like then, I knew how things were, but I didn’t know know. Now I do.
Sometime in the last week I returned to Sarah Kendzior’s November 2016 essay “We’re heading into dark times. This is how to be your own light in the Age of Trump.” I remember reading it the first time that November, in my car, on my phone, after participating in a protest march. I remember these words–
“I have been studying authoritarian states for over a decade, and I would never exaggerate the severity of this threat. Others who study or have lived in authoritarian states have come to the same conclusion as me.”—
and feeling both the weight of their truth and a simultaneous disbelief because…well, there are so many reasons I don’t even know where to start. It’s bad, but not that bad, I told myself, shivering in the dark. It can’t be. I remembered the Sinclair Lewis novel that had chilled me when I read it at the height of the Reagan era–It Can’t Happen Here–and repeated to myself the lie in the title of that book. Don’t over-react, I told myself. It might not be that bad, I thought. (The gaslighting we do to ourselves might be the very worst kind.)
I returned to her essay because, as I absorbed the truth of what recent events mean about so many things, I felt myself shift to new acceptance of things I once found unimaginable. OK, I thought. This kind of violence is no longer impossible here. I felt myself accepting this in the same way I’ve come to accept that children will die in school shootings and black men calling for help will die under the boots of police officers and our elderly and disabled will die alone, trapped in nursing homes where Covid has run rampant because our government is broken and we have forsaken them. Acceptance doesn’t mean that I condone these things but that I feel myself shifting into seeing them as inevitable. Over four years I have watched myself lose my ability to feel shock; instead, when the news fills with words and images of another injustice, I am often numb. If I feel anything, it is most often weariness. “Why are you surprised?” is often my response to someone sharing news of another breach of what was once a norm.
Kendzior wrote about how all of us might find ourselves doing things we once thought we’d never do, and four years ago I thought that meant the kind of things I’d read about in Nazi Germany–stifling speech, turning neighbors into the police, looting the homes of those who’d disappeared in the middle of the night. It didn’t occur to me until re-reading her words that the actions we thought we’d never take could be passive and internal.
In her essay, Kendzior urged us to write down who we were and what we believed and what our lives had been so far, so that we wouldn’t forget it. She cautioned:
“Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
You do it because everyone else is doing it, because the institutions you trust are doing it and telling you to do it, because you are afraid of what will happen if you do not do it, and because the voice in your head crying out that something is wrong grows fainter and fainter until it dies.”
Apathy is a kind of cruelness, and denial is a tricky thing. More and more, I look back at the pre-2016 me and feel shame and disgust at all I didn’t see and know that I now do. The information about who and what we are was there all along. I saw much of it a long time ago and turned away from it and then forgot it. I told myself that things were not really as bad as some said. I cautioned myself against over-reacting. I know that denial is a protective mechanism we employ without awareness to protect ourselves from truth we aren’t yet equipped to manage, and in my good moments I can feel empathy for my pre-2016 self. I suppose she was doing the best she could with what she had. In my bad moments, I want to shake her and yell at her to wake the fuck up. I want to hide her in a closet and pretend she was never me.
This is where I read Kendzior and find myself wondering. In important ways, I don’t want to remain the person I was then (much as I miss feeling the security I once felt). I want, now, to be clear-eyed and awake, and I don’t want to be cruel. I think–especially when we are swimming in cultural waters filled with lies and distortions–that it can be difficult to parse out what acceptance and resistance really mean. That I no longer feel shocked at things that were once shocking might be less about acceptance and more about stepping out of denial. Periodic numbing might, at least in the short term, be a necessary response so that we do not drown. We need to figure out how to accept reality without accepting that reality is OK. I read Kendzior now and wonder how we determine when authoritarianism actually starts. If it is about making us forget who we are and what we believe in, then for me it did not start with Donald Trump. It probably started during the first Iraq war. Reagan, like Trump, was a masterful communicator who lied. We called him the Teflon president because no matter what he was caught in, it seemed to roll off him without consequence. Like Trump, his agenda was about strengthening white supremacy by gutting social supports and shifting wealth to already wealthy and powerful white Americans while scapegoating and incarcerating those who were not white. That agenda was continued by Bush, and something about that war broke something in me. I turned inward and away from forces and a fight I felt powerless to affect. I became apathetic.
Kendzior cautioned us that our power comes from hanging on to who we truly are, and that “to protect and wield this power, you need to know yourself – right now, before their methods permeate, before you accept the obscene and unthinkable as normal.”
But the obscene and unthinkable are normal. It’s all I’ve ever known, really. It’s us. It’s who we’ve almost always been. “This is not normal,” has been a drumbeat of the white, liberal resistance since Trump took office, to which people have color have consistently answered, “Yes, it is. This has always been normal for us.”
As I’ve been letting my thoughts spool out in this ramble of a post (all I can manage this week), on a weekend in which we honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, I think maybe the best thing I can land on is this: I don’t want to hang onto 2016 me. To be any kind of light to anyone, I need to go back much further.
Been while since I’ve offered dots, but here are some that have informed this week’s thinking: